Shell pile. Photo: Upstream Project

By: David Hanson

They were predicting tornadoes in the area, but that’s not why there weren’t many oystertongers on Apalachicola Bay. Tommy Ward, co-owner of Buddy Ward & Sons seafood, strongly suggested we not continue paddling for a day or two. Tommy is the kind of person you listen to when it comes to the Bay. He’s spent more time on the water or directly beside it at his beloved 13 Mile Seafood house than he has in any town.

13 Mile is named for its distance from Apalachicola, a small town that’s Florida’s best surviving fishing village. It’s located at the mouth of the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay. Rusty old shrimping boats with names like “Rodney and Candy” line the dock beside one of the few main drags, Water Street. Men in splattered jeans and white rubber boots work the docks at aluminum-sided shucking and processing houses. They take the shrimp, flounder, grouper, scallops and oysters from the boats for cleaning, packaging and loading onto trucks destined for Atlanta, Tallahassee, Birmingham, sometimes New York.

Tourists walking Water Street can peer inside the open screen doors and see the crates moving and hear their dinner being cleaned and shuffled along the conveyor belts. Tourists love it here, and it’s not for the beaches. The tourists want to see the “authentic” mix of raw, old-world industry and its obvious, direct relationship with the natural world. That’s such a rare thing these days that it makes Apalachicola a novelty.

For four days we paddled on the Apalachicola from its start below Woodruff Dam. We joined the parade of Flint and Chattahoochee River water sweeping toward the Gulf of Mexico. The Apalachicola River carries millions of gallons of freshwater into the Bay each day. Or at least, it’s supposed to. A thin necklace of low, sandy barrier islands hems in Apalachicola Bay. Salt water enters through a few natural and man-made “cuts.” It mixes with the freshwater coming down with nutrients and minerals from all the way up in the Appalachian Mountains. Some people say they can taste the difference between an oyster that grew near the mouth of the river (more mountain flavor) and one that grew near a “cut” (more salty ocean taste).

The over-use issues we’ve been hearing all the way down these working-class rivers come to roost in Apalachicola Bay. Years of drought and water withheld behind the dams we’ve portaged have starved the Bay of freshwater. Conch have moved in and silently sucked the life out of oysters. The freshwater pulses from a healthy river system once pushed the predators back into the Gulf.

And the BP oil spill didn’t help. Its toxins might be hurting oysters and shellfish, but the reactionary effects of job loss and fear of job loss could be worse. In the frenzy to curtail lost seafood jobs anticipated by resource officials, there was a leniency toward over-harvesting in many of the Bay’s oyster beds. That might have yielded some wages for the time being, but it left nothing to grow and sustain the industry for upcoming seasons. Oysters grow fast in Apalachicola, taking about twelve to eighteen months to reach harvestable size. But the small ones have to be tossed back for the cycle to continue. Oystertongers need the money today, and that makes it hard to think long-term and adhere to size restrictions.

The tornadoes do not hit the Bay as predicted. In fact, it hardly rains. After two days, another cold front shoulders out the warm, threatening system.

I call Tommy and ask if he has any oystertongers going out. 13 Mile’s dock used to have a line of oyster boats—handmade wooden skiffs with tiny cockpits built around the stern for driving—each afternoon. Men and a few women would motor up to the old dock and haul 12-15 sixty-pound burlap sacks off the bows of their boats. They’d be weighed and tagged, and the tongers would be paid. The oysters would immediately be cleaned, then shucked or packaged for shipping. Now 13 Mile is nearly empty. Tommy only has one tonger going out.

We meet Kendall at the crushed-shell road to 11 Mile at 6 a.m. Theres no sign of dawn as we motor onto the black, wind-chopped bay. Kendall has been oystering for thirty years. He left high school after tenth grade. His grandfather dropped clam shells (for oyster spat to grow on) into the bay in the late 1800s, and the family retains the lease on almost 200 acres of oyster beds today. They are beds that Kendall cares for. He doesn’t over-harvest, and he leaves plenty of shells for next season’s spat to cling to.

Kendall drives us toward his family lease. It’s pitch-black. He pulls a spotlight out of the cockpit and shines its thick, round beam across the water. He doesn’t need to find his way. He’s looking for poachers. Struggling men desperate for a few bucks pulled from the struggling bay.

The rivers are flowing again. The reservoirs upstream have been topped off for the first time in a long while. Winter rains fulfilled their promise this year. But nothing is ever certain this far downstream.

Kendall at his daily work as an oystertonger. Photo: Upstream Project

To learn about the Chattahoochee Project, click here.
To read more on earlier updates from the Hanson brothers’ journey along the endangered Chattahoochee, click here.